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New Left Review I/177, September-October 1989


Ellen Meiksins Wood

Rational Choice Marxism: Is the Game Worth the Candle?

Some time ago, in the pages of the New Left Review, a claim was made on behalf of ‘rational-choice Marxism’ as ‘a fully fledged paradigm, which deserves to take its place beside the two other constellations of theory currently discernible within the broad spectrum ofprogressive social thought—namely, post-structuralism and critical theory’. [*] I am very grateful to Perry Anderson, Robert Brenner, Diane Elson, Norman Geras and Neal Wood for their comments and suggestions. [1] Alan Carling, ‘Rational Choice Marxism’, nlr 160, November/December 1986, p. 55. (Hereafter, this article will be cited as Carling I.) More than that: ‘it is now only within the rational-choice context that some of the leading items on the classical agenda of Marxist theory—historical explanation and the delineation of social form, the collective dynamics of class struggle, the evolution and evaluation of capitalism—can be fruitfully discussed.’ These are very large claims, and if this new ‘paradigm’ can even partially live up to them, it deserves the vogue it is now enjoying in the Anglo-American academy. A theoretical advance in any one of the ‘leading items on the classical agenda of Marxist theory’ would be a worthy accomplishment; but it would indeed be a remarkable achievement if, even without driving any likely competitors from the field, this body of thought could be shown to merit the status of a ‘fully fledged paradigm’, a comprehensive theoretical ‘constellation’ with the explanatory range of classical Marxism.

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